A Guide to Writing Specifications by tcq17618


									A Guide to Writing Specifications

                   Compiled for:

      The Los Angeles Unified School District

      Procurement Services Group

                                                February 2002
                                    TABLE OF CONTENTS

SECTION                                                 PAGE

The Basics                                               1

It’s a collaborative effort                              5

Qualified Products List (QPL)                            6

Design Specifications                                    6

Performance Specifications                               7

Item Specifications                                      9

Freight and Delivery Specifications                      10

Installation Requirements                                11

Warranties                                               13

Extended Warranties                                      15

Statements of Work/Services                              15

A note about “Personal Services”                         16

Professional and General Services Contracts              17

Kinds of Statements of Work (SOWs)                       18

Derailed/design SOWs                                     19

Level of Effort SOWs                                     19

Performance-based SOWs                                   19

Mechanics                                                26

The need for clarity                                     27

A Guide to Writing Specifications                        February 2002
SECTION                                                PAGE
Sentence Structure                                      28

References                                              28

Paragraph cross-references                              28

Use of acronyms                                         29

How grammatical errors in specifications are handled    29

Essential and nonessential dependent clauses            30

Restrictive and nonrestrictive dependent clauses        31

Multiple conjunctions                                   31

Specifications in the third person                      32

Elegant variations                                      32

Types of ambiguities                                    32

    •    Ambiguous words                                33

    •    Contextual ambiguities                         33

    •    Syntactic ambiguities                          34

Punctuation to resolve ambiguities                      35

Chains of prepositional phrases                         36

Modifiers that apply to two or more nouns               36

“Front-end” work                                        37

Ellipsis                                                37

Totality                                                38

The slash “/”                                           39

A Guide to Writing Specifications                       February 2002
SECTION                                      PAGE

Verb tenses and auxiliary verb usage          40

More on word choices                          42

Gender specificity                            43

Lists                                         44

Bureaucratic prose                            45

And finally…                                  46


A Guide to Writing Specifications             February 2002
                                    THE BASICS

A Guide to Writing Specifications         1      Feb 2002
Writing specifications may be the most challenging and important step in the
procurement process. Consider that a specification is a “city map” for
procurement. Without an accurate map the procurement efforts to obtain
equipment, goods and services may fail. The primary objective of good
specification writing is to assure the acquisition of what you want and need.

Many people are sensitive about having their writing criticized. The
important thing to remember in dealing with all the criticism your
specifications may bring is that you are writing on behalf of the Los Angeles
Unified School District, and they really aren’t your specifications.
Consequently, they have to represent a consensus of the opinions held by all
the District officials affected by them. Consider the changes the reviewers
request to be their best professional advice on how to deal with matters in
which they specialize. If they catch errors in spelling or grammar, be
especially thankful, since releasing a document containing such errors would
cause your audience to doubt your authoritativeness.

There are two ideals to remember when developing specifications:

    1. The bidders/proposers, hereinafter referred to as “offerors”, cannot
       read your mind.
    2. The offerors are not going to provide any more than is asked for in the
       written Invitation for Bid (IFB)/Request for Proposal (RFP),
       hereinafter referred to as solicitation, specification.

According to the National Institute of Government Purchasing, Inc. (1977),
“a specification is a concise statement of a set of requirements to be satisfied
by a product, material, or process [or service].” There are several types of
specifications which will be needed at one time or another. Specifications
may take many forms, each having a specific respective benefits. Listed
below are the various types which will be described in this guide.

    1. Qualified Products List (QPL)
    2. Design Specifications (combination of Performance/Design
    3. Performance Specifications
    4. Item Specifications
    5. Statements of Work and/or Services

A Guide to Writing Specifications          2                             Feb 2002
Regardless of the types of specification being developed, you will want to
remember the guiding principle and follow criteria that will include:

    • Identifying minimum requirements
    • allowing for a competitive bid/proposal
    • providing for an equitable award at the lowest possible cost or best

To assure that specifications meet these criteria, the following may be used
as a check (√ ) list:

            A specification should be:

            ____ simple but exact
            ___ identified with terms used in the marketplace
            ___ reasonable in its tolerances (unnecessary precision is
                expensive and restrictive)
            ___ capable of being met by several offerors for the sake of
            ___ clear and understandable

Specifications that are inaccurate, incomplete or ambiguous may fail to find
a contractor to render the performance or deliver the product needed by the
District, thereby necessitating expensive and time-consuming changes and
delays in performance or delivery. Furthermore, ambiguous provisions may
impede full and open competition in the procurement process by preventing
offerors from competing on a “common” or equal basis. This occurs when
offerors interpret the specifications and arrive at different reasonable
conclusions about what kind of performance they will be required to render
with the result that they submit bids or proposals reflecting different kinds of
performance. In sealed bidding procurements, bidding on an equal basis has
generally been construed to require bidding documents that are so clearly
and precisely drawn that all bidders are offering essentially the same product
or service, with the result that bids can be compared and selection for award
made solely on the basis of lowest price.

A Guide to Writing Specifications          3                               Feb 2002
In negotiated procurements (RFP process), which generally contemplate a
balancing of technical merit and price, and thus may accommodate markedly
different technical approaches to meeting the District’s needs, competition
on an equal basis has been construed to mean that the specifications must be
sufficiently clear and complete to afford all potential offerors an equal basis
to understand what are the District’s fundamental requirements.

Specifications and solicitations must be written in an “unrestricted”
manner. These documents are “restrictive” if they include requirements
which limit competition and are not necessary to assure satisfaction of the
District’s basic needs. The kind of restrictiveness of competition may not
only inject elements of unfairness into the process, but may also prevent the
District from getting the kind of performance which can best satisfy the
District’s needs at the most reasonable price. It is important to note that
there is an ever-present tension between the District’s attempt to write
contract documents in sufficient detail to assure contractual commitment and
the requirement that they should be broadly enough written that undue
restrictions on competition will be avoided.

Specifications which are written around or modeled upon the product of a
particular supplier are often considered restrictive because they likely
contain features which favor that supplier’s product. Other suppliers are
placed at a disadvantage, even though they may be able to manufacture a
product which meets the description. However, if the features of a product
are considered necessary to assure satisfaction of the District’s basic needs,
the fact that the specification has been written around a particular supplier’s
product will not by itself provide a basis for objecting to the specification.
The use of “or approved equal” comes to play here in that a product made
by any other manufacturer would be acceptable as long as it was “equally
qualified” to do the same job with the same performance. The key is that the

A Guide to Writing Specifications         4                             Feb 2002
offerors have no doubt as to what is required. (See “Item Specifications for
more information on “equals.”

It’s a collaborative effort

Developing specifications is an important responsibility for you and the
customers you support. Make no mistake, it is the hardest function in the
procurement process. It is wise to build a team of resource people to help
provide and collect information in the development of specifications. Such a
team might consist of:

    •   your internal customers (requesting departments)
    •   manufacturer’s representatives
    •   equipment dealers
    •   service agencies
    •   other professional colleagues
    •   yourself

It is your customer’s and your responsibility to analyze and develop the
information to create your unique and final specifications.

Don’t rule out good resources to support the team such as a neighboring
school district or other public agencies. Don’t delegate this responsibility
and don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to.

A Guide to Writing Specifications         5                             Feb 2002
Developing specifications is a challenge that can be frustrating. It is easy to
use a short-cut style or form of specification. The following descriptions of
specifications should help in your decision about time investment in
specification writing.

1. Qualified Products List (QPL)

A qualified products list identifies various brands that have met specific
criteria. Bidding is limited to those manufacturers whose products are on the
list. The purpose of this type of specification is to determine, in advance,
those products on the QPL. A bidder who submits a bid for a product not on
the QPL is not responsive, i.e., does not follow bidding requirements.
Thanks to the QPL, any questions from manufacturers whose products are
evaluated as unacceptable can be handled before the bids are issued.
Developing a QPL is time consuming, but the benefits at the time of bidding
are worth the effort.

When using a QPL, the specifications should state that the products on the
QPL have been tested and have met the stated specifications. In addition,
when you intend to adopt a QPL, you should notify the manufacturers that
will be affected. Your program notice should describe all the requirements
necessary for their products or items of equipment to qualify for the list.
The QPL should be updated frequently.

To promote competition and take advantage of innovation in the
marketplace, continue testing other products or pieces of equipment even
after the QPL is developed. Manufactures may change the quality and
performance of their products, so be flexible and encourage the testing of
new ones.

2. Design Specifications

Design specifications detail the characteristics that an item must possess
to meet your specific requirements. They state what materials or methods
must be used, or tell the contractor how to go about doing the work. All it
takes to turn an otherwise performance-type specification into a design
specification is ONE design requirement.

A Guide to Writing Specifications         6                              Feb 2002
Some specifications are so detailed that they also may describe how the
product is to be manufactured. Design specifications are not as applicable
for purchasing items designed by a manufacturer. The tendency to specify
equipment with exact characteristics can be too restrictive and cost
prohibitive. This is the case when dealing with patented products. For items
that are neither patented nor custom made, a modified design specification
can meet the criteria of a good specification by describing only essential
features. This allows offerors more flexibility when establishing their bid

3. Performance Specifications

Performance specifications say what the product must do or what end result
will be produced.

Be careful when you see or hear the word “performance,” because it’s used
in two senses in this context. The first sense is the one we’ve been using
here, meaning performance of the product. The other sense means
performance of a person or company: that’s the sense intended when
lawyers talk about the “impossibility of performance.” In Statements of
Work (SOWs), the two are usually the same, but in product specifications,
there may be a difference. (SOWs are described in detail on pages 15-25 of
this guide.)

Performance specifications describe the performance requirements that a
product has to meet. The end result becomes the priority consideration. The
manufacturer is given latitude in how the requirement is to be accomplished.
Performance specifications encourage innovation and ingenuity. Tests or
criteria are developed to measure an item’s ability to perform as required.
Performance specifications provide a good approach to writing

In such specifications, design measurements and other specific details are
not stated nor considered important so long as the performance requirement
is met. Where an item is purchased by a performance specification, the
contractor accepts general responsibility for design, engineering and
achievement of the stated performance requirements. The contractor has
general discretion and election as to detail but the work is subject to the
District’s reserved rights of final inspection and approval or rejection.

A Guide to Writing Specifications       7                            Feb 2002
In general, performance specifications advise the contractor what the final
product must be capable of accomplishing rather than describing how it is to
be built or its design characteristics. An example of a performance
specification could be that in the procurement of an oven for a cafeteria, the
oven must bake a certain volume of rolls, evenly brown on all racks, in a
specified number of minutes.

Specifications can include both design and performance features used as
prerequisites in developing a qualified products list (QPL). One reason why
writing equipment specifications can be challenging is that there could be so
many different types of equipment. Each piece of equipment has certain
necessary requirements to consider. There are, however, common elements
that must be included in your equipment specifications. The type of
specification used is an individual choice, but there are a few things to

    • If using a brand name specification, you must include the statement,
      “or approved equal that meets or exceeds the specifications in quality,
      size, capacity, and performance.”
    • If using a QPL, include the statement, “limited to products on the
      Qualified Products List”.

Description of item/product being procured

The type of specification you use will determine how to detail this
“description” section of your solicitation. For example:

          Type of Specification                     Requirement

         Qualified Products List                  General description
                                           Detailed description focusing on
                    Design                  “design” and essential features
                                              Detailed description stating
                Performance                   performance requirements
                    Item                      Description stating specific
                                        information that clearly identified the
                                           level of quality and performance

A Guide to Writing Specifications         8                             Feb 2002
The “Description” section of the solicitation also describes accessories and
options to be included. The more details you provide your offerors, the
better bids/proposals you will get.

4. Item Specifications

You should be very careful about specifying equipment by make and model
number. This practice is not considered proper in public contracts since it is
unfair to competing contractors. You can’t put yourself in the position of
deciding what offeror gets the contract for an item. If you say “or equal”,
you’ve passed a hurdle, but you’re stuck with someone else’s idea of
equality. If you can define what you mean by “equal” in terms of salient
features that are needed for your purpose, then if you’re brave, go ahead.


If the item you’re specifying is a part, and not the whole product, you’re
warranting the specified part as suitable for the purpose. If the part needs to
be integrated with other equipment, and the contractor unknowingly
integrates it in a way that the resulting system doesn’t meet specifications,
then you can expect a claim.

Brand name specifications cite a brand name, model number, and other
descriptions that identify a specific product of a manufacturer. Brand names
should only be used as examples of the desired quality level but used to
restrict the bid only to those brands. As noted above, it must be understood
that items equaling or surpassing the quality level are also acceptable.

It’s better to use more than one brand name if possible. When using brand
name specifications, a statement should be included such as “prior approved
equal” to indicate that items equivalent in quality to the specified brand
names will be accepted by the District.

It is essential to include specific information that clearly identifies the level
of quality and performance expected. It is appropriate to name the salient
characteristics to be used in determining bid responsiveness.

A Guide to Writing Specifications           9                              Feb 2002
Brand name specifications do not constitute adequate specifications

    • objectivity may be lessened in the process of awarding the bid
    • equality of opportunity among bidders may be reduced; and
    • competition may be eliminated, which could result in a higher cost to
      the District.

In the procurement of equipment, it is necessary to include such
requirements as electrical, plumbing, steam, mechanical, etc., and any
special requirements such as:

    • installation instructions
    • removal of any old equipment that the items being procured are going
      to replace
    • demonstration requirements
    • any required permit(s) acquisition

Example: Deliver, uncrate, remove crate, set in place ready for the final
        connections by others.

Freight and delivery specifications

A Guide to Writing Specifications       10                               Feb 2002
It is common practice for a manufacturer to coordinate the shipping
arrangements. Be familiar and knowledgeable of the responsibilities of
various shipping terms. Common methods of shipping used are:

    • Freight on Board (FOB) Destination, Freight Prepaid—The seller
      pays the freight charges, owns the goods in transit and files any claims
      for damage or shortage.

    • FOB Destination, Freight Collect—The buyer pays the freight
      charges, but the seller owns the goods in transit.

    • FOB Destination, Freight Collect and Allowed—The buyer pays
      the freight charges but deducts charges from the seller’s invoice for
      goods. Seller owns the goods in transit.

    • FOB Origin—The buyer accepts ownership at the place of
      manufacture and seller pays the freight charges. It is usually in the
      best interest of the District not to accept FOB Origin unless District
      personnel transports the items. The buyer assumes all risks for
      transport and files any damage claims.

To avoid unnecessary headaches, it is recommended that equipment be
shipped to the dealer location to receive equipment, check it, then deliver to
the school site, office, or the warehouse. If delivery is made directly to the
school, make sure the facilities are adequate to receive the equipment from
the truck, and there are adequate personnel to unload the equipment. If a
loading dock is not available, specify that delivery be made on a truck with a
lift gate. Often with new construction or an extensive renovation project, the
general contractor receives the equipment.

You will have several delivery choices. Decide in advance where the
equipment will be delivered. Include these instructions in your

Installation Requirements

The installation requirements that should be included in the equipment
specifications may be different for each piece of equipment in a bid. It is

A Guide to Writing Specifications         11                            Feb 2002
important to make sure the details of this part of the process are included in
the bid. Be aware that installation can be a source for disagreement between
two parties. To avoid any misunderstanding, delineate the responsibilities
for the various aspects of the installation process.

No matter who is responsible for installing the equipment, it is a good
practice to request installation manual(s) from manufacturers before writing
specifications. A Request for Information (RFI) can be used to obtain these
manuals. The detailed information in the manual verifies the requirements.
Confirms the fit, promotes fair bidding, and enables you to make a
preliminary review.

Installation requirements for new construction and renovation projects are
fairly standard and usually are coordinated by the general contractor.
Consider that replacing or adding new equipment may present obstacles that
need to be detailed.

The following list of questions will be a helpful check (√ ) list in identifying
the bidder requirements:

___ Who will install the equipment?

___ Who will pay for the installation? Are charges included in the price or
    will there be additional charges?

___ Who will receive, uncrate, and set in place?

___ Who will remove crates and other debris?

___ Who will make final utility connections?

A Guide to Writing Specifications         12                             Feb 2002
___ Who will remove the existing equipment?

___ Who will relocate old equipment to new location?

___ Who will disconnect the utilities from the existing equipment (water,
    electric, gas, steam, drains, and ventilation)? If you specify the utility
    work to be done by others, the responsibility to coordinate this with
    the arrival of the new equipment will be left to you or your designee.

___ Who will apply for permits (if required)?

___ Who will install, replace, or adjust fire protection for the equipment?

Note: Specification writing and installation go hand-in-hand when
      procuring equipment. Verify you have access to the location
      intended for the new piece of equipment…what about long corridors,
      a 90° turn, or a narrow doorway? All of this needs to be addressed in
      the specification.

It is recommended that you include any/all applicable federal, state, and
local codes in the specification even though in many instances it would be
understood by the contractor. It’s good to just delineate all of your
expectations. Don’t ever assume that contractors will automatically know
this or that. Most contractors aren’t mind readers, so you must spell out all
of your requirements.

Warranties vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Therefore, it is
beneficial to know what is included and not included in the warranty. Some
standard conditions and limitations covered in a warranty are:

    • period of time new products are warranted from date of original
      installation or purchase delivery
    • the liability of the manufacturer
    • normal labor charges incurred in repair or replacement within a
      certain mileage limitation, 50 miles or 100 miles round trip is usual

A Guide to Writing Specifications         13                            Feb 2002
    • full parts or limited parts
    • parts and labor
    • listing of parts whose warranty period varies from the standard as
      stated in the original condition
    • a no-obligation statement to warrant the equipment and the specifics
      such as, misapplied, mishandled, abused, modified, etc.

In bid specifications, include warranty requirements. Any modification to
the standard original warranty, such as extended warranty coverage, should
be stated.

A warranty should be analyzed just like a feature of the piece of equipment.
Some manufacturers offer varying conditions that may become a deciding
factor in purchasing the equipment.

A check (√ ) of some warranty questions to ask in evaluating a warranty are:

___ What is the duration of the warranty?

___ Does the warranty provide service and repair at the installation site?

___ Does the warranty cover labor, travel time, mileage, or zone charge for
    the life of the warranty?

___ Are the parts warranted for the duration of the original warranty?

The manufacturer’s representative and the authorized service agency would
be good resources to use in evaluating warranty contracts.

A Guide to Writing Specifications        14                              Feb 2002
Extended Warranties

Extended warranty coverage is as the term implies. A manufacturer extends
the warranty period of its original equipment warranty for a period of a
given number of months (i.e., 12 months) beyond the original equipment

An extended warranty could be advantageous if the additional price is in line
with the price of a potential normal service call. Buying extended warranties
is like buying insurance. It may not be worth it, but then again it could save
you expensive repairs.

Some questions to consider in deciding on the value of an extended warranty

    • Is the equipment a high maintenance item?
    • Are the controls and electronics of the equipment sophisticated?
    • Would specially trained technicians be required to service the
    • What is the price of an authorized service agency call?
    • How many miles is the installation site from the authorized service

Annual prices of extended warranties vary from one type of equipment to
another, and some can be very costly. Again, forming a team of resource
persons may help in this decision.

Statements of Work/Services

There are several key precepts to follow in preparing a Statement of Work or
a Scope of Services for a service contract, hereinafter referred to as the
SOW. The SOW should be clear and brief. It should be written in plain
English, free of ambiguity and internal inconsistency. It should be
performance based, meaning you should tell the contractor what to do, but
not how to do it. Statements of Objectives (SOO) may be utilized to
convey the required outcome of contract performance, with the contractor
subsequently preparing the SOW from the SOO.

A Guide to Writing Specifications        15                            Feb 2002
An SOO provides contractors with a general statement of what the District
needs. They provide guidelines so that the contractors, instead of the
District, may develop the specifications and statements of work that become
incorporated into the contract. When the SOO method is used, the District is
delegating the task of specification writing to the offerors. One might think
such an approach would eliminate the need for the District to employ as
many staff as specification writers, and one might also think that this very
guide would become obsolete; however, such is not the case. Those who
used to be writers are now critics and editors, since it has become more
important than ever to do a thorough job of checking the resulting
specifications and statements of work.

The important thing is consistency. When you refer to the Statement of
Work or the Contract, it is extremely important that you check them to make
sure they say what you think they say. These documents are so often revised
during the review cycle, you should go back and check all the cross-
references just prior to release of your solicitation document.

A note about “Personal Services”

The words “personal services” ordinarily refer to things done by businesses
for individuals. We often see them in ads for banks, hairdressers, car dealers
and the like. However this is NOT what those words usually mean when the
appear in laws or regulations. Instead, they refer to the types of services
ordinarily expected by employers of employees, which require the physical
presence of the workers and not just the production of completed work
products. By the way, there are several (pun intended) other terms you’ll see
in procurement work that likewise may have special legal meanings.


A Guide to Writing Specifications           16                         Feb 2002
There is a long-standing public policy that personal services are to be
obtained in accordance with applicable personnel procedures and not by
contract. Generally speaking, personal services are those rendered under
supervision by their recipient, often with the use of the recipient’s facilities
or equipment. Hence, a farmer who contracts with a group of laborers to
harvest the crop in his field with his equipment, while he supervises, is
actually hiring employees to perform personal services, and not really
contracting for the work.

The Federal Government banned the use of personal-service contracts for
two reasons: first to ensure that inherently governmental functions are done
only by Government workers, and second to maintain Congressional control
over the personnel ceilings.

While the private sector has not been quite so discriminating about
categories of service labor in the past, eventually the tax regulations are
forcing private firms into specifying labor in a similar manner to the way it’s
done by the Government. The reason is that many firms have taken to
calling their workers “subcontractors” in order to avoid paying payroll taxes.
In many cases, such firms have been told that their so-called subcontractors
are actually employees because they were performing personal services.

This is also true here at the School District. We contract for professional
services and not personal services. This is why we require the contractor to
complete an “Independent Contractor Checklist.”

Professional and General Services Contracts

The legal importance of the Statement of Work (SOW) varies depending on
the of contract involved. The greater risk of performance on the contractor,
the more important the SOW. It should come as no surprise that a poorly
drafted SOW invariably serves as the catalyst for a contract dispute. The
actual intent of the District must find clear and precise expression in the
SOW. Nothing should remain implicit or “understood”. It must be stated.

Sometimes the SOW will identify a problem or technical requirement
without defining a solution, as mentioned above in the section on Statements
of Objectives (SOOs). It may mean that there are alternative solutions, and

A Guide to Writing Specifications          17                              Feb 2002
the District may want the contractor to weight tradeoffs and recommend the
best solution. In this case, and recommend the best solution, then a
contractor could contend that the SOW was defective and caused a lack of
success. If the SOW requires the contractor to propose and implement the
solution, then the contractor is fully accountable for achieving the
performance goals stated in the contract.


Given the complexities of today’s technologies and performance
requirements, the District is likely to acknowledge that it does not have all
the answers…it needs outside experts. As a result, you will need to require
that contractors demonstrate, concretely that they have access to
authoritative expertise to solve problems and achieve results. This is more
than requiring so many years of experience. More to the point:

    •   What credentials, certifications, and licenses do they have?
    •   How have customers recognized their achievements?
    •   How productive and effective are they?
    •   What contributions have they made to their profession and industry?
    •   What training or education have they had to keep them up-to-date
        with cutting-edge knowledge?

Unless you are requiring a temporary personnel contract—the supplying of
warm bodies that meet the requirements of position descriptions, the
proposals you need to receive from contractors need to demonstrate
technical and professional leadership. This should extend to “past
performance” histories, personnel qualifications, company capabilities, and
access to leading edge knowledge.

Kinds of Statements of Work (SOWs)

There are three (3) major types of SOWs, and they are:

    1. Detailed/Design SOWs;
    2. Level of Effort; and
    3. Performance oriented or performance based.

A Guide to Writing Specifications        18                            Feb 2002
Although there are other types and variations of each, this guide will focus
on these three.

Detailed/design SOWs tell the contractor how to do the work. They may
include specific requirements/tasks that you want the contractor to
perform—to the effect that you want to control the processes of the
contractor. There are wide variances in this type of SOW. It is as varied as
the requirements that are acquired under them. That point is that to the
District, to a large degree, requires the contractor to follow the District’s
way of performing the task. This causes the risk of performance to be borne
by the District and not the contractor. For instance, the contractor performs
a task and follows the District’s SOW exactly, and the service is faulty, who
is to blame? Absent malfeasance, it is the District’s process that the
contractor was implementing so the contractor cannot be faulted. Although
this type of SOW is primarily used for manufacturing or construction, other
work efforts are described in this rigid format.

Level-of-effort SOWs can be written for almost any type of service unless it
is an inherent District function. The real deliverable under this type of
contract is hours of work. They are normally associated with task order and
delivery order contracts. Services are acquired via individual orders issued
by the District. The SOWs are usually very broad and describe the general
nature, scope or complexity of the services or products to be procured over a
given period of time. It is important in writing these SOWs to assure all
work items are sufficiently covered. Task order and delivery orders can only
be issued in those areas specifically covered in the SOW. All activities
outside the SOW must be acquired through a separate procurement action.

Performance-based statements of work are the preferred method of stating
needs. A performance based SOW structures all aspects of a procurement
around the purpose of the work to be performed and does not dictate how the
work is to be accomplished. It is written to ensure that contractors are given
the freedom to determine how to meet the District’s performance objectives
and provides for payment only when the results meet or exceed these
objectives. It maximizes contractor control of work processes and allows for
innovation in approaching various work requirements. Performance based
SOWs emphasize performance that can be contractually defined so that the
results of the contractor’s efforts can be measured in terms of technical and
quality achievement, schedule progress or cost performance. The goals of
performance based SOWs are to:

A Guide to Writing Specifications        19                            Feb 2002
    1. Save money by reducing contract costs from elimination of
       unnecessary effort, though innovation by the contractor and by
       reducing District surveillance over the contractor’s efforts.
    2. Enable the District to shift its emphasis from processes to
    3. Hold contractors responsible for end results. Ensure that contractors
       are given the freedom to determine how to meet the District’s
       performance objectives.

Since the SOW will be read and interpreted by a variety of people from
diverse disciplines, such as attorneys, procurement/contracts personnel,
proposal pricing staff, accountants, technical specialists, engineers,
architects, etc., it is imperative that the words be understood by not only the
writer of the SOW, but by the readers.

The SOW, as an integral part of a contract, is subject to contract law. A
fundamental legal principle is that because the District is the drafter of the
SOW any ambiguity usually is construed against the District by the courts;
that is, when two reasonable interpretations are possible, the court will adopt
the interpretation espoused by the non-drafting party. The interpreter must
look to what the contract actually says, not what the District meant to
say or would like to have said.

Drafters of SOWs are often tempted to write vague language because they
think it gives them the flexibility to loosely interpret the SOW at a later date.
However, the drafter (District) would lose in a contract dispute based on an
ambiguity in the SOW. Further, ambiguous work statements result in
protests, unsatisfactory contractor performance, delays, claims, disputes and
increased contract costs. Conversely, a high-quality document leads to a
greater likelihood of successful contractor performance. When drafting a
SOW, strive for clarity above all else.

A Guide to Writing Specifications          20                             Feb 2002
Use the following checklist (√ ) to determine the adequacy of your
Statement of Work (SOW):

___ Does the work statement contain only essentials (actual minimum
    requirements)? Have “nice to have” items been eliminated?

___ Has extraneous material been eliminated? (Ask the following questions
    to judge whether material should be included:

           • Does it tell what the contractor is responsible for?
           • Is it necessary in order for the District to obtained the desired

___ Is the background or other introductory information readily
    distinguishable from the contract objectives and requirements?

___ Is the SOW sufficiently detailed to permit the prospective contractor to
    estimate costs, to tabulate the labor and other resources needed to
    accomplish each task or phase of work?

___ Are specific duties and end results set for in such a way that the
    contractor will know exactly what is required; that the District
    representative who monitors performance and signs acceptance reports
    can tell whether the contractor has complied?

___ Does the SOW explain the interrelationship between and how tasks
    are related to desired results and deliverables?

___ Does the SOW identify constraints and limitations?

___ Does the SOW contain standards which will make it possible for all
    parties to measure performance?

___ Is there a time-phased requirement for each activity to be completed or
     or time to be delivered? If elapsed time is used, is it clear whether the
     time will be counted as calendar days or as work days?

___ Have all requirements for data or reports been specified?

A Guide to Writing Specifications           21                             Feb 2002
___ Are proper quantities shown?

___ Do any standard specifications or paragraphs apply in whole or in part?
    If so, are they properly cited and referenced?

___ When it is necessary to reference other documents, is the referenced
    document properly identified?

The following example of not getting the message regarding performance
based contracting involves a contract for cutting the grass at a District
facility. Under this contract, the SOW stated that the contractor would cut
the grass once a week from April through October using Snappy lawn

The contractor did a super job, moving north – south one week and east –
west the next. The mower blades were sharpened regularly, and the grass
had the highly manicured appearance of the outfield in Dodger stadium.
Instead of receiving a high five, the contractor received a cure notice
threatening termination for default because the contractor was using Blueboy
lawn mowers. By specifying the brand of lawn mower to be used, this
contract violated good business sense and public policy. A performance
based service contract SOW would have stated:

Mow periodically to maintain grass at a height of 2” to 3” with a uniform

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) guide to best practices for
performance based SOWs provides the following guidance:

    1. Identify only those outputs that are essential and should be part of the
       summary of performance requirements. Express the outputs in clear,
       concise, commonly used, easily understood, measurable terms.

    2. Do not repeat material in the performance based SOW that is already
       included in other parts of the contract.

A Guide to Writing Specifications         22                            Feb 2002
    3. Do not include detailed procedures that dictate how work is to be
       accomplished. Instead, structure the performance based SOW around
       the purpose of the work to be performed, i.e., what is to be performed,
       rather than how to perform it. For example, instead of requiring that
       the lawn be mowed weekly, or that trees be pruned each Fall, state
       that the lawn must be maintained between 2-3” or that tree limbs not
       touch utility wires or buildings.

    4. To the maximum extent practicable, the performance based SOW
       should be a stand-alone document, with minimum references to
       regulatory or other guidance. Only mandatory requirements should be

The OFPP has established the following checklist (√ ) for the
performance based SOW (PBS):

                                Minimum Mandatory PBS

___ Performance requirements that define the work immeasurable,
    objective-related terms.

___ Performance standards (i.e., quality, quantity, timeliness) tied to the
    performance requirements.

___ A District “quality assurance” (QA) plan that describes how the
    contractor’s performance will be measured against performance

___ If the procurement is either critical to the District’s objective or requires
     relatively large expenditures of funds, positive and negative incentives
     tied to the Districts QA plan measurements.

                               Additional PBS Components

___ The solicitation and contract/task order convey a logical, easily
    understood flow among performance requirements, performance
    standards, District QA plan, and any incentives.

A Guide to Writing Specifications            23                           Feb 2002
___ The solicitation and contract/task order convey a logical, easily
    understood flow among performance requirements, performance
    standards, District QA, and performance incentives.

___ Process oriented requirements (e.g., job descriptions, education
    requirements, level-of-effort) and reports are eliminated to the
    maximum extent feasible.

___ District QA performance evaluators assigned to assess contractor
    performance are knowledgeable/ trained in PBS.

___ Commercial and/or industry-wide performance standards, where
    available, are relied upon.

___ The marketplace and other stakeholders are provided the opportunity to
    comment on draft performance requirements and standards, District
    QA plan, and performance incentives.

___ If the size of the requirement justifies the resource expenditures,
     potential offerors are given the opportunity to learn more about the
     “as is” operation to facilitate their ability to develop intelligent

___ The contract/task order is fixed price.

___ The contract/task order is completion type (vs. term type or level-of-

___ Multi-year contracting authority is used where available.

___ Experience and lessons learned from previous procurements are used to
    define recurring requirements to PBS.

Implementing performance based Statements of Work (SOWs) in many
public agencies constitutes forced “cultural change”. These types of SOWs
can quickly become “business as usual” or “how it has always been done” if
they are managed as “business as usual”. A survey done previously by
Coopers & Lybrand reported an unexpected outcome of performance based

A Guide to Writing Specifications        24                             Feb 2002
contracting: “Even though the contract direction did not specify “how to”,
government people on site insist upon telling the contractor how to perform
certain tasks. The improper administration of a contract where District
employees supervise contractor employees can create a “personal services”
contract, which as previously discussed is inappropriate in public agencies.

The following services are examples of those that have been successfully
acquired using PBS methods:

        •   Telephone call center operations
        •   Training
        •   Software maintenance and support,
        •   Environmental remediation
        •   Software Development
        •   Management support
        •   Studies and analyses
        •   Surveys.

Performance based SOWs have helped to streamline the procurement
process because they don’t tell the contractor how to do the work. The
contractor assumes the risk for performance and when performance is
properly documented can serve in determining the basis for award in future
procurement activities. Again, the key to success in drafting a SOW is
clarity above all else.

A Guide to Writing Specifications        25                           Feb 2002

A Guide to Writing Specifications        26     Feb 2002
The need for clarity

The most obvious reason for writing clear specifications is to ensure that you
will inform the contractors well enough that they can actually produce or
provide the product you need. However, there is another reason why the
specifications and statements of work for public contracts must be clear:
fairness to all offerors.

If one offeror happens to have better access to inside information about the
work to be done than the others, then vaguely written specifications will give
that offeror an unfair advantage over competitors who may be perfectly
capable of doing the work, but lack knowledge about some of the details.
The protest that may result from such a situation will take a great deal more
time and effort to resolve than you would have to spend sharpening up a
vaguely worded document.

Being fair to all vendors is important for three reasons. The most obvious
when we are writing specifications for a public contract is that everyone has
a right to be treated equally by a public agency spending taxpayer money.
Requiring one vendor’s product to the exclusion of others would serve to
deny the others an opportunity to benefit by receiving the order. The
remaining two reasons apply to private business transactions as well as
public ones. First, it’s good business to encourage competition; without it
we pay higher prices. Second, having several independent sources for a

A Guide to Writing Specifications        27                            Feb 2002
given product ensures a reliable supply of needed goods, and often permits
larger quantities to be obtained on short notice.

Sentence Structure
Keep your sentences short and simple. It doesn’t matter if specifications
read like a grade school textbook. We’re not trying for the Pulitzer Prize.

Many times, when sentences are so long and complex, it’s because the writer
became confused, and ended up saying something different from what was
intended, or maybe nothing at all.

There have been specifications for a job where the contractor had submitted
a claim. Only one sentence in the lengthy document described the essential
function of the equipment that was being procured. The sentence was so
long and complex that its author couldn’t see some of his errors in grammar.
The errors made the sentence unenforceable. In that situation it was
impractical to do much other than pay the contractor’s claim, accept the
equipment as built, even though it didn’t work right, and the agency staff
had to fix it themselves.


Four in this guide discuss different types of references.

    1. References to other documents in the procurement package
    2. Cross references to other paragraphs
    3. References to specific specifications and standards

Paragraph cross-references
Paragraph cross-references cite other paragraphs within their own document. Such
citations are highly prone to error. It is not unusual for a reader to find a reference either
to the wrong paragraph or to a paragraph that doesn’t exist. Hold your cross references to
a minimum.

A Guide to Writing Specifications                28                                  Feb 2002
Use of acronyms
Acronyms are words that are made from the initial characters of an often-
repeated phrase. For example, “RFP” is an acronym for “Request for
Proposal.” Usually they are capitalized, but when they are so widely used,
they become demoted to the status of ordinary English words. The standard
way of defining acronyms is to capitalize the words they represent, and then
follow those words by the acronym enclosed in parentheses.

Acronyms make documents hard to read, since the readers often have to stop
and refresh their memory of what some of the acronyms mean. When the
document is only a page or two long, it’s easy to scan backwards and find
the places in the text where the acronyms are defined. In a hundred-paged
document, it’s not so easy, and it sometimes takes a reader hours of
searching to find just one definition.

The ways to avoid this problem are to avoid using acronyms, especially ones
that are project-specific, and to put a glossary of acronyms in your
document. Make the glossary easy to find, and make sure each acronym is

How grammatical errors in specifications are handled

There are three categories of grammatical errors:

    1. Those that don’t affect the intelligibility of the sentence. An example
       would be “Joe ate less doughnuts than John.” It should read “fewer
       doughnuts,” but no one can argue about what the writer intended.

    2. Those that make the sentence totally unintelligible. These don’t often
       get past the review cycle, but when they do, the contractors may
       legitimately ignore them in providing the bid for equipment. Usually
       we’re lucky and the contractor will tell us about them and we can fix
       them in the specification.

    3. Those that leave the sentence somewhat intelligible, but change the
       meaning of the sentence to something different from what was
       intended. For example, see the section below on restrictive and non-
       restrictive clauses. In this case, even a contractor who has a policy of

A Guide to Writing Specifications         29                             Feb 2002
        goodwill towards the District is likely to build/provide equipment to
        meet the erroneous requirement. Eventually, the error will be
        discovered, and will be fixed through a modification, which results in
        increased costs to the District.

Essential and nonessential dependent clauses
See also: restrictive and nonrestrictive (below)

The ability to distinguish between essential and nonessential dependent
clauses is an extremely important skill for specification writers. When a
clause that was intended to be essential is inadvertently written as
nonessential or vice versa, the requirement stated by it may be distorted or
lost. The visible difference between the two is nothing more than a comma
before the introductory word. The nonessential clause gets the comma.
Here is a list of introductory words and phrases that may introduce both
essential and nonessential clauses, and therefore require the utmost caution:

after                    because               since              which
as                       before                so that            while
as if                    by which              to which           who
as though                for which             unless             whom
as soon as               if                    when               whose
at which                 in order that         where

A Guide to Writing Specifications         30                            Feb 2002
Restrictive and nonrestrictive dependent clauses
When referring to clauses, the terms “essential” and “nonessential” are
interchangeable with the more commonly used terms “restrictive” and
“nonrestrictive.” We have used the terms “essential” and “nonessential” for
most of this text because they seem to express the distinction more simply.

An essential clause is essential to the meaning of the entire sentence. If you
take away an essential dependent clause, the main meaning of the sentence is
altered. Doing so to a nonessential clause, while removing information,
does not change the core meaning of the sentence.

Whenever someone says that a knowledge of grammar is not needed in order
to accurately express meaning, the distinction between restrictive and
nonrestrictive clauses is sure to be mentioned in the argument that ensues. If
you wish to be a credible writer, you must master this distinction.

Multiple conjunctions
When you write sentences with two or more conjunctions, you risk
producing an ambiguity. For example:

        The flange shall be fastened by gluing and clamping or riveting.

This could mean “gluing and clamping or riveting” or it could mean
“gluing and clamping or riveting,” with the bold characters added for
clarity. Unfortunately, English does not provide us with a mans of declaring
the order of application of its logical operators the way computer languages
do. The burden of resolving the confusion of precedence is placed on the
writer, who must find a different way of expressing the idea without
ambiguity. In the above case try

“The flange shall be fastened either by gluing and clamping or by riveting.”

A Guide to Writing Specifications         31                           Feb 2002
Specifications in the third person

Normally we write specifications so that they always refer to the third
person. Forcing your writing into the third person is difficult, and often
makes the sentences difficult to read. It runs contrary to the advice of
modern writing teachers who are trying to reform us, but the rest of the
world for the most part is expecting to see specifications written in the third
person, and writing them otherwise is inviting criticism. Hence, using the
words, “I,” “we,” and “you” is frowned upon.

If you MUST refer to the first or second person, be sure you define the
meaning of the pronouns, and use them only as defined.

Elegant variation

You probably have been taught for aesthetic reasons to avoid repeating the
same words and phrases. For specification writers, such practice may be
disastrous. Forget what your teacher told you; you’re not competing for a
Pulitzer Prize. It is extremely important to clarify, that you refer to things
using exactly the same words every time.

Some good examples of synonymous (or nearly so) terms often erroneously
used together in training devise specifications are:

    • trainee, student
    • trainer, training device, training system, system, device
    • Scenario, exercise, training exercise, script, mission, profile

If you intend to distinguish between the meanings of terms like these, you
must define each term in the document. If you intend no difference in the
meaning of two words, use only one of them.

Types of ambiguities

Ambiguous sentences can be interpreted to have more than one meaning.
Three types of ambiguities are found in sentences. These are:

A Guide to Writing Specifications         32                             Feb 2002
    1. Ambiguous words,
    2. Syntactic ambiguities, and
    3. Contextual ambiguities.

Ambiguous words are words that may have more than one meaning. Most
English words have multiple meanings. In normal reading we usually can
tell from the context which meaning was intended. We really get in trouble
when someone goes looking for ways to misinterpret our words.

An example of an ambiguous word is “run,” which could have any of 67
different meanings. The ambiguous words “any” and “include” are so often
misused by people that they deserve special articles of their own, but that
discussion shall be for another day.

Adjusting your point of view will help you catch ambiguities.

Contextual ambiguity--Sometimes we find a sentence that has no
ambiguous words and can be reasonably diagrammed in only one way, but
still leaves its reader confused about its meaning. Consider the sentence:

        All surfaces…shall be painted white to increase reflectivity.

Does it mean “paint all surfaces white”? Or does it mean “determine which
surfaces have lower reflectivity than white paint, and then paint them white”
We know from other sources that the writer really wanted all surfaces to be

A Guide to Writing Specifications          33                           Feb 2002
The infinitive phrase, “to increase reflectivity,” was added to explain the
specifier’s general intentions. In addition, it gave the reader two ways to
interpret the words.

Generally speaking, it is unwise to make explanatory statements in
specifications. They tend to cause results like the example. The example
sentence is taken from a real Federal Government case. The Government
won partly because the contractor did not have data to prove that some of the
surfaces were already more reflective than white paint. Even though the
Government won, the dispute caused time and labor to be wasted.

Another example is: “The chicken is ready to eat.” Does this mean that it’s
time to feed the chicken or that dinner is served? What do you think?

The only way you can avoid making errors of this type is by adjusting your
point of view and playing “what-ifs” in your head when you read the text.
The ability to catch conceptual errors in specifications and foresee their
possible effects comes with many years of experience.

Syntactic ambiguities occur when there are two or more ways to read the
structure of a sentence. Take, for example:

        Flying aircraft may be hazardous.

This is an often-used example, and is attributed to a famous linguist named
Noam Chomsky. Does it mean the act of flying may be hazardous? Perhaps
it means that airplanes themselves may be hazardous. Maybe it means
they’re hazardous only when in flight. Regardless, it cannot be resolved
from the content of the sentence since “flying” may act as a noun, an

A Guide to Writing Specifications           34                          Feb 2002
adjective, or a verb. Things your English professor called “misplaced and
dangling modifiers” also cause syntactic ambiguities. In spoken English,
ambiguities are resolved by raising the pitch of a word. The rise in pitch is
called intonation. If you need to add intonation to a sentence to make the
meaning clear, the sentence most likely has an ambiguity.

Other types of syntactic ambiguities happen when pronouns aren’t clearly
tied to a single noun phrase, in strings of prepositional phrases and in
sentences with multiple conjunctions. Sometimes syntactic ambiguities can
be resolved by punctuating the sentence correctly.

Punctuation to resolve ambiguities

Hyphens tie together chains of words that serve as units, usually adjectival
phrases. Most people tend to neglect hyphens when they are needed.

Commas sometimes play a syntactic role in grouping clauses to indicate
their effectivity. For example:

        “The flange shall be fastened by three round-head screws, three flat-
        head screws, and three fillister-head screws all of grade eight.”

means you’ve specified that three of the screws must be of grade eight.

If you add a comma before “all,” then you’ve specified nine grade-eight

A comma preceding a dependent clause often indicates whether or not the
writer intends the clause to be essential to the meaning of the sentence. In
such cases, the presence of a comma may change a firm requirement into a
mere statement of fact.

Note well: commas in specifications demand extreme care.

A Guide to Writing Specifications         35                            Feb 2002
Chains of prepositional phrases
 When you write a sentence containing a series of prepositional phrases all in
a row, you are running a risk of creating a syntactic ambiguity. The most
common textbook example is, “He saw the man on the hill with the

Another example that hits closer to home: “The instructional materials
shall be prepared for use by District teachers.” Who is supposed to prepare
the materials, the contractor of the teachers?

Granted, sentences with nested modifiers are often necessary in
specifications, but when you need to use one, be careful. Pay attention to
which word each phrase modifies. By some stretch of your imagination, if it
is possible for a reader to attach one of the phrases to a different word than
the one you intended, you must restructure the sentence. Remember, your
readers (contractors) may be very creative.

Modifiers that apply to two or more nouns

We often get confused when a writer tries to apply a modifier to two or more
nouns without writing the modifier twice.

Here’s an example:

        The flange shall be fastened by nuts and bolts of stainless steel.

Which is stainless, both the nuts and bolts, or just the bolts?

If you get into a dispute over specification requirements that have this kind
of an ambiguity, it will probably be settled by applying the modifier only to
the noun that appears nearest to the modifier. Unless the context indicates
otherwise, cases of confusion like this one are usually resolved by attaching
the modifier only to the nearest word that it may modify. Lawyers call this
approach to resolving ambiguities “the doctrine of the last antecedent.” It is
a rule that is easy to run afoul of, especially when the sentence in question is
long and complicated.

A Guide to Writing Specifications          36                                Feb 2002
“Front-end” work
Before you specify something, you must know what is really needed, and
whether or not building it is commercially practicable. Supposedly, a great
deal of front-end work has been done before you were assigned to write the
specifications. We know, however, that sometimes requirements are
overlooked or misidentified during these early phases of the project, and the
errors may impact the project in its later phases. Such is quite likely, since
keeping track of numerous requirements can be very difficult. Large
projects often collect their requirements in a database to help them cope with
the very large number of requirements.

We have ways to protect ourselves from errors in requirements. These are to
make sure that the end-user reads, understands, and approves the
specifications, and that the specifications are checked by knowledgeable
technical staff people before they are released.

Remember, competent professionals know the limits of their own technical
knowledge. They are never hesitant to seek help from other professionals
with different specialties. Remember, it’s a collaborative effort. That’s

Ellipsis is another related phenomenon of language mentioned in this
context because the notion is similar. When speaking in English, we often
leave out a word or short phrase without interfering with the understanding

A Guide to Writing Specifications        37                            Feb 2002
of cooperative listeners. This practice is also permissible in casual written
English. We say the missing words are “understood.”

When reading specifications, however, nothing is understood! Readers
are not necessarily cooperative, and may actually be looking for a way to
rationalize failure on their part to deliver acceptable goods.

Examine your sentences for cases where words are “understood” and insert
the missing words where they belong.


        “The generator shall supply the processor with 10.5 amperes
        and the batteries 8.5 amperes.”

A “shall supply” has been left out, and it is not clear whether the understood
phrase belongs after “and” or after “batteries.” The resulting statement is

None of these phenomena are acceptable in specifications. You should be
aware that some contractors employ skilled analysts whose job it is to find
ways to interpret your words differently from what you intended. These
interpretations may be used as the basis for reducing requirements and for
the submissions of claims. The practice is commonly known as “finding
money in the contract.”

Totality is an idea that is easily expressed in words, but very rarely occurs in
real life. We use it whether we really mean it or not. When you use words
like: “all,” “always,” “never,” “every,” and “none,” you may be creating a
logical error. Conflicting requirements often result from totality statements
when something else in another sentence makes an exception to the totality.

Now that you’re aware of the totality problem in language, here’s a trick you
can play on your friends and co-workers:

Listen for them to use the phrase “all the time” in conversation. When they
do, take the statement literally and comment on its illogic. For example

A Guide to Writing Specifications         38                             Feb 2002
                                    Tom: “I go to the public library
                                           all the time.”
                                     You: “Tom, if you were at the
                                           public library all the time,
                                           then you wouldn’t be here
                                           in the office right now.”

Needless to say, your friends will be impressed with the preciseness of your
reasoning. After doing this awhile, just a snicker will suffice. Soon you’ll
find that you have enriched their vocabularies with uncommon words like
“often,” “usually,” and “sometimes.”

Or ,

you will drive them crazy! Nonetheless, in specification writing you need to
be precise.

The slash mark “/”

Use of “and/or”

Properly called a “virgule,” the slash mark is often found in draft
engineering specifications. The purpose of this section is to convince you to
never use one in a specification. In fact, it’s not even good form in ordinary

The dictionary says about the virgule: “an oblique stroke (/) used between
two words to show that the appropriate one may be chosen to complete the
sense of the text.” Please note that it’s your contractor who gets to
decide which word is proper. Note also that the dictionary tells the
contractor to chose just one, not both.

When we write A/B, we usually mean “either A or B” or “either A or B or
both” or “both A and B” or “number of A’s divided by number of B’s.”
There’s no telling which one.

A Guide to Writing Specifications                39                       Feb 2002
In many cases, substituting a hyphen for the slash will fix the problem. For
example, we see “instructor/operator” in training device specifications where
instructor-operator” would be more clear.

In most cases, you’ll have to write “A or B or both,” or whatever you really

Verb Tenses and auxiliary verb usage

When writing specifications, we always state requirements in the future
tense using the emphatic form “shall.” Hence, the finished product shall be,
shall produce, shall consume…The weaker auxiliary verbs “will,” “should,”
and “may” do not express a requirement. In the case of “will,” the sentence
places responsibility on the purchaser/buyer. “May grants permission, and
“should” states a preference. “Must” is ambiguous, since it may express a
presumption instead of a requirement.

All work where compliance or performance is blinding upon the contractor
must be expressed in mandatory language and must be distinguishable from
background or general information, which should be kept in the
“Background” element of the specification or SOW. So if the contractor
must do something, write, “The contractor shall…”
For example:

John must love Deborah; after all, they’ve been happily married for over
twenty years.

A Guide to Writing Specifications        40                           Feb 2002
Correct usage of “shall” and “will” in specifications is extremely
important, and is a frequent source of errors found in solicitations. Be clear
in what you say the requirements are.


    • Shall is used to express a binding requirement—mandatory.
    • Will is used to express a declaration of purpose on the part of
      the purchaser/buyer or when futurity is required. (As a rule of thumb,
      the contractor shall and the District will.)
    • Should or may are used to express non-mandatory provisions. It is
      best to avoid them, (Use of “permissive” or “choice” words is
      appropriate if you intend to give the contractor flexibility.)

A Guide to Writing Specifications        41                            Feb 2002
More on word choices

    • Define and be consistent with terminology. Make sure that you use
      words and phrases (especially technical ones) in the same way
      throughout the specification/SOW.

    • Pronouns can be ambiguous. It is better to repeat a noun and avoid
      misinterpretation. The words “it,” “they,” “them,” and “their” are
      hazardous. When a pronoun is preceded by more than one noun
      phrase, people may argue over which noun phrase the pronoun refers

        Consider the following example taken from a SOW:

                 Prior to accepting software or documentation developed
                 by subcontractors, the contractor shall evaluate them for
                 completeness, technical adequacy, and compliance with
                 District contract requirements.

        What is to be evaluated? Is it the products, or is it the subcontractors?

        Note that pronouns often refer to nouns in preceding sentences.
        Check a few sentences to the left of each pronoun that you use for
        nouns that the pronoun may refer to. Is your meaning clear?

    • Avoid, “any”, “either” and “and/or.” These words imply that the
      contractor has a choice. Use of “permissive” or “choice” words is
      appropriate only if you intend to give the contractor flexibility.

    • Avoid words and phrases which are subject to multiple meanings and
      broad interpretations. Use active voice not passive. Passive voice
      promotes ambiguity and leads to needlessly complex sentences.

    • Try to use short, descriptive sentences to ensure clarity.

    • Avoid using bureaucratic, scientific or complex terms except as
      necessary. When you must use them, define them within the

A Guide to Writing Specifications           42                            Feb 2002
    • Whenever possible, use simple words and terms in order to avoid

    • Stress that any papers, recommendations, etc., which the contractor
      submits are drafts, not final copies. If you are procuring professional
      services, then discuss the process which the District will be used to
      review the contractor’s work.

    • Avoid the appearance of “personal services’ in the way in which the
      SOW is written by including as much detail or as many performance
      requirements as possible. Doing so will underscore that tasks are
      sufficiently well defined to allow the contractor to perform

    • Avoid words such as “support” or “assist”, which might imply joint
      efforts between the District and its contractor unless the contract’s
      assistance or support roles are subsequently described in a manner
      which makes it clear that the contractor will perform independently.

    • Clearly delineate the contractor’s performance requirements.

    • Avoid open-ended SOWs which contain on-going tasks without
      defining completion.

    • Avoid abbreviation unless they are of common usage or are defined at
      the first usage.

    • Specify or emphasize performance requirements, “what is needed”,
        versus design approach, “how to”.

Gender specificity

It pays to make all the things you write gender-neutral. Avoid words like
“man,” “he,” “him,” and “his,” which might indicate that you haven’t
considered the person involved might be a woman. Instead, use “person,”
“they,” “them,” and “their,” and refer to people by their currently correct job

A Guide to Writing Specifications           43                          Feb 2002
titles like “firefighter” and “server” instead of the obsolete “fireman” and


Whenever you compose a list in the text of your specifications, you should
take pains to make it complete and easy to read, and that its elements all
consist of parallel parts of speech.

Completeness of lists

Take the time to think of everything you could possibly want to include in
your list. Generally speaking, the best policy for specification writers to
follow is “If you don’t mention a thing explicitly, then don’t expect to get

Adding generalized list elements, like “and others,” “and the like,” or the
words “not limited to” will not get you something you haven’t mentioned
explicitly. Generalized list elements add little meaning to the text, and can
often be ignored by readers. If you must use generalized terms, then use
them alone and unaccompanied by specific items. By mentioning one thing
explicitly, you may be excluding others. So often and for so many years has
this method of interpretation been used that lawyers have a Latin name for it:
“Expressio unis est exclusio alterius,” which means “to say one thing is to
exclude the other.”

Sometimes generalized list elements are subject to interpretation according
to another legal canon know as “ejusdem generis,” which limits the
unwritten elements to members of the same family. For example, the list of
“resistors, capacitors, inductors and other components” could be interpreted
as not applying to transistors, since transistors are active components and all
the listed components are passive.

Readability of lists

When the elements of a list become numerous, the visual clutter of the text
makes it difficult to read, and readers are therefore likely to miss one or
more of the elements. This human-factors problem is easily solved by

A Guide to Writing Specifications         44                             Feb 2002
listing the elements vertically with bullets or subparagraph labels and
separated by blank lines. For example:

Temperature-rise specifications shall apply to:

            a.   resistors,
            b.   capacitors,
            c.   inductors, and
            d.   transistors.

As a rule, indented lists are always preferred in technical documentation.

Parallelism in lists

The elements of each list should all be the same part of speech. For
example, the list:

            a.   safety,
            b.   rowboats,
            c.   resuscitate, and
            d.   life preservers

is incorrect because “resuscitate” is a verb and all the other three elements
are nouns. This list’s elements should have all be nouns.

Bureaucratic prose

        “You write with ease to show your breading,
        but easy writing’s curst hard reading.”
                                        Richard B. Sheridan
                                        (1751 – 1816)

Bureaucratic prose is a holdover from the 18th century, and the Federal
Government and public agencies have been trying for many years to put an
end to it. It is stuffy and impersonal; it uses needlessly difficult language
and is often written in the passive voice. These traits are so distracting that
readers have a hard time staying focused on important things the writers
have to say. Often, people who read a document written in bureaucratic

A Guide to Writing Specifications         45                              Feb 2002
prose end up knowing very little about the document’s content. No wonder,
then, that important laws and regulations are sometimes inadvertently

Take the time to go over your drafts, looking for ways to say the same thing
in fewer words, simpler words, and shorter sentences. The labor will pay off
in terms of fewer misunderstandings and less chance of constructive

The District faces real problems in having contractors increase their profits
by exploiting unclear specifications and thereby generating the need for
rework. A solution to this problem comes with contractor performance
evaluations prepared by District staff and used as determining factors in
decisions about future contract awards.

And finally…

The objective of this guide is to provide guidance and assistance to our
procurement professionals and our technical and program customers when it
is necessary to develop specifications or statements of work for
procurements. It is hoped that the guidance provided herein will result not
only in better-written procurement documents, but better products and
services delivered to the District, as well as realized cost savings.

Good luck with your specification writing!

A Guide to Writing Specifications        46                             Feb 2002
                                                       Addendum 1

                           GRAMMAR REVIEW

For most of us, the word "grammar" evokes painful memories
of tedious exercises done many years ago while we were
sitting on a hard seat and eagerly awaiting the bell. The subject
matter is forgotten, and all we remember is the pain.
Unfortunately, grammar is a foundation for further learning.
Without it we would have no terms in which to describe and
discuss language, and that's why this section has been
We shall try to cover the topic as quickly and painlessly as
possible while nonetheless conveying an explanation of all the
grammatical terms used elsewhere in this guide. We'll briefly
cover only the topics you need right now. Consequently, we’ve
left out a great deal of information that you may wish to review
in your pursuit of better writing skills. For that information,
you may refer to Web pages posted by some genuine English


A Guide to Writing Specifications   1                      Feb 2002
                                                  Addendum 1

In the way of a warning, real grammarians may have fits over
some of the things we’ve said below. That's because we've
ruthlessly simplified a topic that properly should consume
many megabytes of disk storage, and could take years to

To begin, let’s review the main parts of speech:
        Nouns and related types of words,
        verbs and their helpers,
        prepositions, and
        Then we finish up with a few words about
If you understand it all, then you've had enough
grammar. Go back to learning about specifications.
That's imperative! If not read on….

A Guide to Writing Specifications   2                 Feb 2002
                                                       Addendum 1

The noun family

A noun is the name of a person, a place, a thing or an idea.
Nouns have properties, like:

        case (nominative, objective or possessive),
        number (singular or plural),
        gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter), and
        countability (mass or countable).

Pronouns, like it, she and they take the place of a noun so you
don't have to repeat the whole noun or noun phrase. The
relative pronouns, which, that, and who perform the special
function of introducing relative clauses.

By the way, words that perform special functions like relative
pronouns are often called function words by modern
grammarians. The function words are the very core of the
English language; to them we attribute the fact that Lewis
Carroll's famous line:

        'Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in
        the wabe.

A Guide to Writing Specifications   3                      Feb 2002
                                                     Addendum 1

This obviously an English sentence, even though it makes little

Adjectives, like slow, modify nouns. Adjectives, in turn, may
be modified by adverbs like painfully. More about adverbs in
a few minutes.

Articles, like the and an alert readers to the fact that that a
noun follows. Sometimes they're called determiners.

When nouns are grouped with their associated articles,
adjectives, and modifying clauses, the combination is
sometimes called a noun phrase.

Often found in technical English are strings of nouns grouped
together, like software life cycle model. In technical writing
texts they're often called noun sandwiches. Thank goodness
we don't have to write our specifications in German, because in
German the noun sandwiches are more like noun sausages, all
strung together into one great big word, like

A Guide to Writing Specifications   4                    Feb 2002
                                                        Addendum 1

The verb family

Verbs are action words. Two good examples are go and write.

This is a good time to mention that a given word in English
often may appear in some places performing one function and
in other places performing another. An example would be the
word paint, which can function as either a noun or a verb.

        You should paint your house every five years.
        Sally sells paint and varnish.

Now back to verbs. Verbs are often made up of a main verb
plus one or more adjoining words known as auxiliary verbs,
or simply auxiliaries. They help to convey the author's
intended properties of the verb, like:

        tense (the time when the action occurs),
        mode or mood (a very complex property that affects the
        manner in which the verb is applied), and
        voice (the party who performs the act or the one on whom
        the act is performed).

A Guide to Writing Specifications   5                       Feb 2002
                                                       Addendum 1

There are numerous tenses in English, but the one we use
almost exclusively in specifications is the future tense. Thank
goodness we don't have to cover the topic of English tenses:
it's a dilly!

Mode in specifications is a slightly more complicated and very
relevant topic. The main subdivisions of mode in English are
the indicative and imperative. There's also another, called
subjunctive, but it's so rarely used correctly these days that we
could safely say it's no longer a part of the language. Here's an
example of verbs in the imperative mode:

        Go to the store and get me a loaf of bread.

Simply stated, imperative verbs are commands. Nearly all
other verbs are indicative.

The voice of a verb is either active or passive. Active voice is

        Deborah bought a loaf of bread at the store.

First the actor, then the verb, and then the object acted upon.
Passive voice reverses this order:

A Guide to Writing Specifications   6                       Feb 2002
                                                         Addendum 1

        A loaf of bread was bought at the store by Deborah.

Note that we could very well have left "by Deborah" off the
end of the passive-voice sentence.

Writing in passive voice has two effects:

    1. It puts the object of the action up front where it gets
       special attention. We do this often in specifications
       because the emphasis in specifications belongs on the
       product we're trying to describe.

    2. It subordinates or eliminates the mention of who performs
       the act. For this reason, bureaucrats often couch their
       statements in the passive voice in order to downplay their
       responsibility. In specifications, it permits us to leave off
       endless repetitions of "by the contractor."

A Guide to Writing Specifications   7                         Feb 2002
                                                       Addendum 1

All of the above are accomplished by the addition of auxiliary
verbs, which can also serve to shade the meaning of verbs.
Preceding a verb with a modal auxiliary like shall, will,
should, may, might, ought, and so on changes the way in which
the verb behaves. For example, correct usage of shall and will
in specifications is crucial: it determines which party, the
contractor or the District, is responsible for fulfilling the

The category "adverb" is a catch-all for words that don't fit
very well in any other category. Most of them modify verbs or
adjectives, and most are formed by adding "ly" to an adjective,
but some of them are harder to describe. The word "just" in the
next example is such an adverb, and it seems to modify either
the verb "works," or the preposition "like," but it is better that
you refer to a genuine grammarian for an explanation of
exactly how it operates.


Prepositions are function words used in front of noun phrases
to express relationships. Most of them are very short words.
For example:

A Guide to Writing Specifications   8                       Feb 2002
                                                         Addendum 1

        John works in a cubicle, just like Dilbert.

Phrases formed by prepositions and their adjacent noun phrase
are called prepositional phrases, and they act as modifiers.
They often appear chained together, as in

        He saw the man on the hill with the telescope.


Conjunctions are words like and, or, and but that tie things
together. Coordinating conjunctions tie together words or
clauses of equal rank. They correspond to the logical operators,
and perform a similar function. Therefore they must be used
very carefully in specifications. Subordinating conjunctions
tie dependent clauses to main clauses.

A Guide to Writing Specifications   9                        Feb 2002
                                                       Addendum 1


Having already said a little bit about sentences written in active
and passive voices, the clause is the only notion about
sentences that's necessary to explain here. Clauses are either
independent or dependent. For example, in

        John gained weight while he was eating his breakfasts at

the independent clause is "John gained weight," because it can
stand on its own and expresses a complete thought.

The remainder of the sentence is a dependent clause, since no
one would say such a thing unless it were part of another
sentence. The subordinating conjunction "while" indicates
that it's not a complete thought, so even though it contains a
complete sentence, it's not an independent clause. In this case,
the dependent clause acts as a modifier to the verb "gained."

Subordinate clauses can be either essential or nonessential.
Another pair of terms for the same notion is restrictive and
nonrestrictive. A restrictive dependent clause changes the
meaning of the independent clause, while a nonrestrictive
clause does not. The difference between the two is often
indicated only by the presence of a comma. For example,

A Guide to Writing Specifications   10                      Feb 2002
                                                       Addendum 1

        David has not seen Mary since she dyed her hair.

means something totally different from

        David has not seen Mary, since she dyed her hair.

David's and Mary's problems are trivial in comparison to the
havoc that this linguistic phenomenon can play on your

A Guide to Writing Specifications   11                      Feb 2002

To top